• Tom Binnie

Enter Mr Hume...

The mornings were really quite gloomy. Even the midday light had a cloak to it as grey clouds filled the dark sky. David set off on foot for the college, foregoing Joe’s offer of a carriage or a horse. He was glad of his long coat as he strode up the steep climb to Calton Hill. The narrow road from Canon Mill joined where the cart road and the walk road from Leith converged. Terraces of part-built workman’s houses lined the road. Passing the burial ground and the churches of Lady Orchy and College, he walked by Trinity Hofpital, up Leith Wynd, across the High Street and down St Mary’s Wynd. These were the streets he frequented as a student. He travelled along the Cowgate until he found a close which led down to the new infirmary; thence along a newly sett road to arrive at his old University College.

‘Doctor Miller, it is good to meet with you. How long has it been?’

‘Twenty odd years, I think, sir.’

David had sent a note to his old school friend Robert Hunter. He had known him first as a High School boy during his later school days. They had then studied together at the College, often finding themselves adversaries in academic debates. Robert had now risen to become the Chair of Greek at the University.

‘And you are master in Kirkcaldy now. You were born for that.’

David nodded.

‘I would tempt you here, but if I remember correctly, you enjoy a larger and perhaps a more impressionable audience.’

‘That is still true. I am at home in front of a class of fresh minds, unhindered by too much learning.’

‘Fresh for you to influence...’

David laughed, ‘You haven’t changed, Robert. I tell you I have a startling bunch at the present. Some, I hope, will attend with you in a year or so.’

‘If you are impressed, then I will surely be. I confess, they will be well received. We are in grave need of students. Not one new entry this term past. Is this why you have come?’

‘Not at all, I come on a very minor matter. We had digressed.’

‘As ever. Shall we walk to the coffee house in the High Street. It is more hospitable and there is always a fire lit.’

‘If you have time? I have the morning,’ replied David

‘Have you been there before?’

David elbowed him gently in his midriff, remembering the hours they had spent drinking together in their youth.

‘You have to be careful, David, I think I can have you held in the stocks for such.’

There were a few looks and nods as they walked into the smoky, crowded coffee house, mostly students David thought. Robert, wearing his college gown and long wig under his tricorn, walked to a busy, small table by a window. The students looked up then stood to offer the master and David their table.

‘Professorial privilege,’ quipped Robert as they sat.

David saw that the hostelry had not changed in twenty years: the cauldron over the fire, coffee pots on the mantle and in the hearth. He was sure the yellowed paintings hanging on the chimney breast and the walls were the same. Two pot-serving maids and a third, dispensing clay pipes with tobacco, attended the tables. There were many more newssheets and pamphlets strewn on the tables than he remembered.

‘Tell me, how is Janett?’

‘I am afraid to report, I have lost Janett. More than a year now.’

‘I am so sorry. I didn’ you have family.’

‘Yes,’ David said with a soft smile, ‘a rebellious daughter. Actually, she is the cause of my visit to you.’

‘I cannot quite take your sad news in. I remember you came as a pair.’

‘It is true, I am but half. There is a pain inside that will not be quelled.’

Robert waited for David to continue.

‘When Janett died, shockingly sudden, it was difficult for us to stay and live in Cupar. By luck, or so I thought at the time, I was offered a better position in Kirkcaldy and we made the decision to move.’

‘That could not have been easy.’

‘No, but we, that is Rose, my daughter, and myself thought it wise, to move forward, I mean.’

‘Of course, how many years has she?’

‘Thirteen years. The good of it has been that, as I have said I have a fine classroom of children and a new school building. The councillors presently are not as..., how shall I liberal or enlightened as I had been led to believe. No matter it is early days yet, and I am not done with it. As well, I am only beginning to appreciate the ease of getting to Edinburgh from Kirkcaldy and visiting old friends.’ David gestured towards Robert.

‘You can find the time?’

‘I am making the time. I have decided to let the irked be irked. I shall not be troubled by them.’

A maid served a coffee pot and two clay cups.

‘Well, I am sorry we can only drink to you in coffee.’ Robert raised his cup.

‘And you Robert, you are doing well?’

‘Yes, you know I enjoy the bookwork and writing. But there are many old hands leading the College and without a vibrant number of students, it is not easy change or progress.’

‘It seems we share similar frustrations. Maybe our chance will come.’

‘We can live in hope. It is good to see you David, you have shaken me out of my torpor. Now, how can I help you?’

‘It is a small thing. I shall not tell the full tale, but at present it serves us to have Rose in Edinburgh. She is staying with friends in a house near the Canon Mills. I set her work and visit, Saturday and Sunday, but she is need of a tutor for one or two days in between. I would pay well. I just ask if you have someone who would suit. Oh, I should add, in Latin, Greek and French if possible.’

‘She is accomplished?’

‘Yes, she has surprised me and challenges the boys’ class. There is only one who is the better of her.’

‘Does she not discomfort the boys?’

‘No, and that is not the reason. They are well accustomed to her now. It is the girls that are the more puzzled.’

‘You have girls and boys? I am the more curious, but it would be rude of me to question more. Personally, I do not have anyone, but...but...’ Robert paused while he thought, ‘John Stewart in Religion has a bright young man who has tutored. Yes, if I recall correctly, he has taken on pupils to gain funds in order to travel abroad and tutored the sons of gentry while he was in France and Italy.’

‘He sounds ideal. Is he studying in Edinburgh now?’

‘I think so. Not for a degree, but he writes daily, uses the library, and gives an occasional talk. He is not, how shall I say, well supported.’

‘And his character.’

‘He is a little eccentric in nature, a very original thinker. I think you would find him academically challenging. His personality is amiable and entertaining, when not deep in thought.’

‘My only concern then, is that you say he studies in Religion, I do not require a preacher.’

‘Ah, no, the opposite in fact. He does come from a strictly Presbyterian family, but he now struggles with the discord between the beliefs he grew up with and his current reading. There is nothing of that nature to concern you.’

‘His name?’

‘As yours, David, David Hume.’

‘If I could leave a note for him with you?’

‘By all means. It may take a day or two to find him.’

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